One of the assigned readings for an introductory theology class I plan to teach is a discussion of C.S. Lewis in relation to Freud. The most obvious point of contrast is conscience, which for Freud is nothing but an inhibitory agency resulting from repression and the internalization of outside influences. Lewis disagrees. Like you, or for that matter any Thomist, Lewis thinks conscience imparts real knowledge. However, his view also seems different from yours. Sometimes he seems more like a Scottish moral sense thinker, because he thinks the feeling of remorse after committing an immoral act indicates a transgression of the Tao. Then again, at other times he seems sort of Kantian, because he relies on first principles. Sometimes he even seems quasi-utilitarian, because he relates acts to the goods they intend. And – this is a big one -- he doesn’t talk about teleology, as you and other natural law thinkers do.
I haven’t read enough of Lewis to be sure, but do you think what I’ve said is correct? I’m hoping that your Thomistic account might serve as a helpful corrective and contrast.
Thanks for writing. Lewis is brilliant, but I can see why all this seems a scramble to you, because there are several issues to be untangled. The remarks I am about to make are based on his remarks about moral law in Mere Christianity, and his remarks about the Tao – his term for the natural norms of life for human beings -- in The Abolition of Man. So if you want to read more Lewis, that’s where to go.
Let’s begin with teleology. I don’t think the fact that Lewis doesn’t talk about it explicitly implies that he doesn’t believe in it. To me it seems that teleology is implicit in his account of what he calls the Tao, because he thinks we have knowledge of the Tao to the end that we be properly human. Teleology is presupposed in other parts of his account too. Birds raise their chicks to the end that they develop into good birds; good teachers teach literature to the end that their students develop sound responses to things.
Another reason Lewis doesn’t mention teleology explicitly is that, just as that other book of his discusses “mere Christianity,” so in The Abolition of Man he tries to present something we might call “mere natural law” (a phrase picked up recently as the title of a book by Hadley Arkes). Lewis is trying to avoid the philosophical apparatus of the various different theories of natural law in order to sharpen our awareness of the underlying facts of experience which the theories are trying to explain. In fact, this is why he borrows the term “Tao,” which means simply “the Way.” He’s not an eastern Taoist (far from it), but he thinks that in the West the term “natural law” has acquired so much baggage that people can’t respond without knee-jerk reactions.
Having said that, I should add that I’m not sure his approach really is “mere.” Just as his “mere” Christianity is not really neutral among all the various Christian theologies, so his “mere” natural law is not really neutral among all the various theories of natural law. But his approach has the advantage of pushing our noses in the moral facts, so to speak, and keeping us from getting hung up in such technicalities as what this or that thinker might have said. The important thing is not who said something or how he said it, but whether it was true.
A third reason he doesn’t mention teleology explicitly is that in Lewis’s day, the view was still dominant among analytical philosophers that you can’t get an ought from an is -- that descriptive premises can’t entail evaluative conclusions -- and that thinking that they can is a fallacy. If doing so really is a fallacy, then it would seem that natural law theory is impossible, because it is based on the facts of our nature. Although Lewis doesn’t challenge the view that is-to-ought inferences are fallacies, he seems to be looking for a way of talking about the natural law which bypasses them. Whether or not he thinks that he has bypassed them, he hasn’t, for he thinks that in a certain sense the Tao just is our nature, as mature oakhood just is the nature of the acorn. He therefore reasons that from the fact of the Tao there follows the evaluative conclusion that a sound human being is one who stands within it.
As it happens, analytical philosophy has retreated from the idea that is-to-ought inferences are fallacious anyway. It would be pretty silly to deny that from the facts that my eyes are for seeing and that they don’t see clearly (a pair of descriptive premises), it follows that they are bad eyes and need correction (a pair of evaluative conclusions). Actually the people who still believe the so-called fallacy to be a fallacy are hoist by their own petard, because they think that from the descriptive premise that we can’t get an ought from an is, there follows the evaluative conclusion that trying to derive one is bad reasoning.
I don’t see anything utilitarian or “quasi” utilitarian about Lewis’s account. Perhaps he looks a bit utilitarian to you because utilitarians talk about pursuing goods, and Lewis does think there are real goods which ought to be pursued. But one doesn’t have to be a utilitarian to believe that. For example, Thomas Aquinas, who is no utilitarian, presents the pursuit of good and the avoidance of evil as the bedrock of all moral reasoning. What is distinctive about a utilitarian isn’t that he pursues goods, but that he denies that there are any intrinsically evil acts, so he thinks that for a good enough outcome, anything whatsoever may be done. Lewis doesn’t believe this any more than Thomas Aquinas does.
I don’t see anything particularly Kantian about Lewis’s account either, since everyone consciously or unconsciously relies on first principles. Thomas Aquinas plainly does, although he doesn’t call the body of first principles the Tao. Perhaps Lewis looks a bit Kantian to you because Lewis believes the Tao includes the Golden Rule, and the Golden Rule is a close cousin of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. But what is distinctive about a Kantian isn’t that he believes something like the Golden Rule, but that he believes that it is the only principle there is. Neither Lewis nor Thomas Aquinas thinks it is the only one. Consider: In order to do unto others as I would have them do unto me, I must first know what I ought to want them to do unto me. If I were a masochist who wanted others to give me pain, then reasoning “Do as I would wish to be done by” would lead me to conclude that I should give others pain. The Golden Rule is the keystone of the arch, but it isn’t the whole arch.
As for moral sense theorists. I am all for trying to present the natural law in a way that appeals to the common moral sense of the plain person. That’s what I tried to do in What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide. However, there is a big problem in deciding whether someone does or doesn’t think like a Scottish moral sense theorist, because the expression “moral sense theory” is ambiguous. Some of the writers called moral sense theorists are given the name because they view right and wrong as something we feel, as we feel emotions. Sometimes they are given it because they view right and wrong as something that we “sense,” as we sense light and darkness. And sometimes they are given it because they view right and wrong as something that we perceive with the mind, in a manner which may not be identical with sense perception, but which is at least loosely analogous to it.
Where is Lewis in all that? He thinks morality is something perceived by the mind with the assistance of properly cultivated emotions. Whether that is a moral sense theory depends, I guess, on how you define moral sense theory, or which moral sense thinker you have in mind. I don’t think the label helps.
As for conscience. Today we often fail to distinguish between conscience itself -- which, as you mention, concerns the knowledge that something is wrong -- and remorse -- which concerns the painful feelings we have when we recognize having done something wrong. Lewis recognizes that these are different things: I can know that something is wrong and not feel bad about having done it, and I can perversely feel bad about having done it even though it was right. On the other hand, he also recognizes that in a well-ordered soul, well-trained feelings cooperate with the mind. For example, although feelings of disgust, disquiet, or remorse can be mistaken, they are also helpful data, arousing the mind to investigate whether something is really wrong.
Finally, back to teleology. I like to say that natural law theories of the classical type – by which I mean “thick” natural law theories, not “thin” ones like we find in, say, the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes -- weave together four different sources of natural moral knowledge, four different “witnesses” to moral truth. One is deep conscience; another is the designedness of things in general; the third is the details of our own design; and the last is the witness of the natural consequences of our deeds. Now the second and third witnesses are obviously about teleology. But the first and fourth witnesses presuppose teleology, because unless conscience is designed to impart the truth, its voice is a meaningless noise -- and unless we are designed to live in a certain way, the consequences of our actions “just happen.”
One doesn’t have to blow a teleology trumpet to talk about these things. One can just talk about them. I think Lewis is that kind of moral apologist.
Does this help?